They Are More Alike, My Friends, Than They Are Unalike

February 21, 2020 | by Field Team

Labour's final three

It’s crunch time in the Labour leadership race, with Emily Thornberry’s elimination last week meaning we are down to the final three.

The remaining candidates have all set out quite different positions. Rebecca Long-Bailey is the Corbyn continuity candidate, Keir Starmer is the moderate who can unite the party’s left and right wing and Lisa Nandy is the maverick champion of forgotten Labour towns in the North of England.

Grotesque oversimplification on all fronts? Well yes, of course. It’s the nature of the beast that nuance goes out the window in campaign season. But with the Labour Party, the simplifications from the media, MPs and Party members has built up in recent years to the point that it is both inaccurate and frankly damaging to the Party.

There is a real tendency to think of every Labour dispute in terms of the centrist ‘moderates’ vs the leftist ‘momentum’. But this binary definition is becoming outdated and in terms of thinking of the leadership contest in these terms, is a big mistake. There are no Blairites in this field. You could even say there are no centrists. Frankly, in terms of policy positions, the candidates are sitting so close together they are almost touching. It has made for a somewhat frustrating election, with little to choose between on the policy front. But in spite of this homogeneity, there has very much been a ‘nod and a wink’ element to all candidate’s campaigns, with each looking to signal their intent to particular party groupings through indirect positioning and public statements that act as clarion calls.

Let’s take Keir Starmer first. Keir has pledged to keep Labour’s policies on nationalising rail, mail, energy and water. He’s promised an income tax rise for high earners, and to strengthen the powers of trade unions. So far, so Momentum. However, notwithstanding these policy positions, his demeanour and professional background as a former boss of the Crown Prosecution Service, has meant he has been able to tread the line and combine both Britain’s Left’s traditions- Liberalism and Socialism. It is this message that has enabled him to assemble a Party coalition running from the former national coordinator of Momentum to the Chief Organiser of Labour First.

Then there is Lisa Nandy. Lisa has called for more tax rises than either Long-Bailey or Starmer, including for middle earners, not just the wealthy. She is also radical on certain social issues, calling for abolition of the monarchy, and has voted against renewing trident, while Corbynista Rebecca Long-Bailey recently stated that she would be prepared to fire nuclear weapons! She’s also taken the strongest line on reforming a party leadership and a system which allowed anti-Semitism to flourish in recent years. Not only has this won her the backing of the Jewish Labour Movement, but she has simultaneously signalled there will be no place for the crank Left if she becomes leader.

Long-Bailey is marginally more hard-line on nationalisation than the others, still advocating Labour’s election promise of taking BT into state ownership. She is also sticking the most firmly to Corbyn’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. But then on the other hand, her rhetoric has arguably been the least progressive on areas like immigration, an issue which was key to the fall of Labour’s ‘red wall’ during the election. Nandy and Starmer have not qualified their support for EU freedom of movement, whilst Long-Bailey has been the one saying we should be ‘pragmatic.’ But before anyone suggests she might be losing her socialist touch, Long-Bailey made clear that if elected leader, she would be prepared to offer current leader Jeremy Corbyn a job in her shadow cabinet- another call to the Party’s left wing who may be considering voting Starmer that she is Corbyn’s true heir.

To put it simply, it’s not simple. The differences between candidates are not as black and white as sometimes portrayed, but full of shades of grey.

Caveat alert. It should be said that policy analysis at this stage needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. We are about as far from General Election season as it’s possible to be, meaning there is plenty of time for whoever wins to rebuild their policy platform and reinvent themselves again. Furthermore, the Labour membership is unapologetically left wing, so it makes sense that the candidates might want to paint themselves that way for the moment. But on the other hand, they definitely haven’t all completely reinvented themselves. Starmer in particular has always been more ‘of the left’ than others realise, (he used to edit a Trotskyist paper called ‘Socialist Alternative’ which certainly kept the red flag flying high)

There are differences in ideology, and Long Bailey is indeed the most likely to continue with Corbynism, evidenced by her closeness to Corbyn and McDonnell more than anything else. But we are not going back to New Labour no matter who wins. The resurgence of the Labour left has left a legacy. Corbyn clearly did not do a good job as leader, but the sentiment in favour of a radical platform existed before Corbyn, and it will still exist when he’s gone.

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